Symbol of ‘long life’

Published 7:56 pm Saturday, December 19, 2009

One of Christmas’ most beloved traditions — nearly a pre-requisite to the holiday — is the Christmas tree.

The tradition of the Christmas tree dates back to medieval times, when people decorated their homes with the boughs of evergreen trees, which symbolized long life and were thought to ward off illness and evil spirits.

The Christmas tree as we know it now is a tradition credited to Germany during the 16th century. Christians are believed to have decorated evergreen trees or a pyramid of wood in their home. These were decorated with candles, a tradition believed to have begun with Martin Luther.

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“It was when he was walking through a snow-covered woods and struck by the beauty of the stars twinkling through the evergreens,” said Lee King, curator at Riddick’s Folly. “So, he took a tree home and put candles among its branches for his family.”

By the time the New England Puritans settled in America, however, the Christmas tree was thought to be a pagan ritual and blasphemous to the sacred day of Christ’s birth, said King.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, when an influx of German and Irish immigrants came to America, that the Christmas tree began to regain popularity.

“The custom of the Christmas tree did not make its way from Germany to Williamsburg until 1842,” King said, referring to the results of his research in Christmas in Williamsburg by Joanne Young. “That year a young teacher at the College of William and Mary, Charles Minniegrode, decorated a tree as it was done in his homeland for the children of his friend, Professor Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, in their home on Market Square.”

After the trees regained popularity in America, families decorated their trees with ornaments, apples, nuts, cookies and popcorn, which was dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts.

It was after the invention of electricity that lights were another traditional tree decoration. Thomas Edison’s assistants are said to have been the masterminds behind the idea.